Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. I think I’ve known that for a long time but have only recently come to realize how much that is true in my own life. Last month Rob told me about a book he was reading and said he thought I’d find it helpful. It is by Kristin Neff and is called Self-Compassion. I purchased the book and read it. Rob was right; I found it to be tremendously helpful.
Neff writes extensively about how a lot of people beat up on themselves when they mess up. They do not extend to themselves the same patience, gentleness, encouragement and support they would to their friends who made the same mistake or mess. The end result of such self-criticism is a lot of frustration, anger, discontentment and depression. Many people actually make their lives miserable by failing to love themselves in appropriate ways. I have been guilty of doing this for years. Neff offers lots of wonderful insight into this problem and also ways we can avoid it. I commend the book to you.
Some folks may have trouble with the concept of self-compassion. It might seem strange, and perhaps even selfish, to love oneself. Others may feel that loving oneself would lead to inordinate pride or narcissism. In reality, loving oneself is a very healthy and spiritual thing to do. In fact, when Jesus spoke of “the greatest commandment” he mentioned it. A lot of people seem to recall only that he said we should love God with all our “heart, soul, mind and strength” (Luke 10:27) and that we should love our neighbor. He qualified the second part of this commandment by adding “love your neighbor as yourself.” We are supposed to love ourselves. In fact, I’m not sure how well we can love our neighbor, or even God, if we do not love ourselves. Loving oneself is very important.
At this point you may be wondering why I’m writing about this on a site dedicated to ”reflections on God and nature.” There are two reasons I do so. First, as already indicated, loving oneself is a vital part of Christian spirituality. I wanted to mention this issue and Neff’s book because I feel that there are likely a lot of other people who are sick and tired of their self-critic beating up on them. I’d like to encourage such people to extend the same grace and mercy they give to others to themselves.
Second, in Neff’s book she mentions taking walks in the woods or out in nature as one example of practicing self-compassion. When you discover that you are beating up on yourself it is important to find ways to give yourself a break. Nature can help. Many studies have revealed that exposure to nature has both physical and emotional benefits. Richard Louv talks a good bit about this in his book The Nature Principle. As Rob and I have noted numerous times, exposure to nature also has many spiritual benefits. It does a soul good to be out in God’s Creation. It can also be a way to show yourself some love.
I hope you’ll give some thought to how you might practice self-compassion. The Bible makes it perfectly clear that God already loves you completely and unconditionally. Perhaps it is time we followed God’s lead and started loving ourselves as well.
(I took the three pictures above on my trip to South Dakota this past fall.)
While working on my sermon for Earth Day I learned about a man named Stuart Pimm. He is a Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University and has won the Heineken Prize. In addition to being a professor, Pimm is a champion of endangered species. He has been very involved in acquiring land in Brazil to help save a species of primates called the golden lion tamarin. Pimm was interviewed by the New York Times concerning his work and at the end of the interview was asked, for some reason, “Are you religious?” This was his response: “I’m actually a believing Christian and Christians have an obligation to care for the planet because it was made by God and does not actually belong to us. So we cannot simply fail to care for oceans, or forests, or creatures. That would be to fail to fulfill our obligations to God.”
I am very thankful that there are people, like Stuart Pimm, who realize that the care of the earth and its creatures are a divine obligation. Most Christians take seriously what they consider to be their divine obligations, whether that be praying, reading the Bible, going to church, tithing, witnessing or serving others. Unfortunately, not enough Christians realize that Creation Care is still yet another divine obligation. When we fail to care for Creation we let God down just as much as when we fail to do all those other things.
I don’t talk a whole lot about sin in this blog but I do believe that failure to be good stewards of God’s Creation is, indeed, a sin. In this regard, it is no different from our failure to fulfill any or all of our other obligations to God. Still, it may have further ramifications than some of our other failures because the health of the planet affects so many others. In fact, it affects all others.
I often tell people that the worst sin a Christian can commit is failure to obey the “greatest commandment” which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31) When we fail to care for God’s Creation there is a sense in which we fail to love God, our neighbor and ourselves. Did not Jesus say we have a divine obligation to love all three? Let’s make sure we do!
(I took the top image last week at Lilley Cornett Woods in southeast Kentucky. I took the ocean scene in Hawaii and the whitetail fawn near Hazard, Kentucky.)
Last night I had a chance to see U2 in concert at Nashville. Being a huge U2 fan I thoroughly enjoyed the show. In many ways, however, a U2 concert is more an experience than a show. There are many things I admire and appreciate about this band from Ireland. In both their songs and the messages that appear on a huge screen throughout the concert they give you much to think about.
At one point in last night’s concert the words “The more you see the less you know” appeared on the screen above me. At first I thought I had misread the words but when I looked again I realized I had read them correctly. My initial reaction was that I disagreed with this statement. I know far more than I would have otherwise due to all the things I have seen in my life. But as I continued to give some thought to the saying it occurred to me that there was definitely some truth in this maxim. In fact I decided it was akin to another truth I came to grasp in my long journey through college, graduate school and post graduate school—the more you learn the more you discover what you do not know.
I think both sayings pertain to seeing Creation. The more I learn about God’s wonderful Creation the more I discover how much I do not know. Likewise, the more I see of His handiwork, it makes me aware of how much I don’t know. In one way this is frustrating and humbling. In another way it is exhilarating and a challenge for me to learn more.
I am quite confident that God wants and expects for us to use the minds he has given us far more than we typically do. I have heard experts say that the typical person only uses about 15% of his or her mental capacity. We have the ability to understand, learn and experience far more than we presently do. Not only is this true; I would argue that our failure to learn more is a sin. In the “greatest commandment” Jesus said we are to love God with all of our mind, heart, soul and strength. We cannot fully love God unless our minds are engaged.
In God’s Creation there is so much to see and also much to learn. Recently I’ve had a couple of experiences with raccoons. A few days ago I got to photograph a baby raccoon that a wildlife rehabilitator friend is caring for. Then three nights ago I heard a loud noise on the deck outside my bedroom and when I explored the cause discovered that a huge raccoon was treating himself to the birdseed in my feeder. Seeing both of these creatures made me realize that I really don’t know a whole lot about raccoons. Seeing them has also made me wish to learn more about these “masked bandits.” So I guess the boys from Dublin are right; the more you see the less you know. This only makes me want to see more and to learn more. I think that’s the way God intended it.
Over the years I have benefited tremendously from the writings of C.S. Lewis. Back in college and graduate school I read a lot of his books. It had been a while since I read anything by him so earlier this year I picked up a book of daily readings from his writings. A few nights ago I came across the following passage:
“To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin; though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.”
We are reminded by Lewis that it is not a wise thing to be too self-absorbed. So many of our problems in society today are the result of people looking out for and thinking of no one but themselves. There is certainly a lot in the media these days that encourages such narcissist tendencies. Great harm, however, comes to both those who give in to these tendencies and those who must be near them. The narcissist path, as Lewis notes, leads to utter spiritual ruin.
As persons created in the image of God we are made to love and admire other individuals as well as the earth and all of God’s creatures. When we do so our souls are made stronger and more beautiful. When we fail to do so they are made weaker and grow uglier.
Later today I will begin a journey with my wife to two of the Hawaiian Islands. We celebrate our 30th anniversary in a couple of months and we decided this would be a great way to mark this milestone. I already love and admire Bonita and have no doubt that I will also find much to love and admire in Hawaii. Being with her and in this special place will greatly enrich my life. I am at the same time thankful for all the other people and places I have come to love and admire over the years. These, too, have led me many steps “from utter spiritual ruin.”
As important as it is “to love and admire anything outside yourself” it is even more important that we are careful not to “love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.” Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment of all is to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind and with all of your strength.” As the God who created us and all that we have He deserves every bit of love that we can give Him. As the God who has made salvation possible for us at such a tremendous price to Himself, He deserves even more love than we can give Him.
It is very easy for us to fall into the trap of loving the things and persons God has made more than we love God Himself. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, when we do this we are not well. We are only spiritually healthy when we give everyone their proper place. We should love God with everything that we’ve got and then strive to “love our neighbor (human and non-human) as ourselves.” This is what Jesus taught long ago and it remains to this day the one and only path to real spiritual health and beauty.
(I took the top image in the Tremont area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I captured the bottom image at Panama Beach, Florida.)
When someone asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was he answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” He went on to say “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 30-31) Today I want to focus on the second commandment which is, in essence, the flip side of the first.
As Christians we are called to love our neighbor. Most people know this. But just who should we consider our neighbor? I’ve heard lots of different answers to this over the years and almost all of them have had to do with people living in the present. Almost twenty years ago I came across a book that helped me understand Jesus’ commandment in a whole new light. That book was Robert Parham’s Loving Neighbors Across Time: A Guide to Protecting the Earth. In this book Parham claims “the looming environmental crisis demands that we revisit the governing principle of love for neighbor, expanding it from a purely spatial perspective. We must think about love for neighbor in terms of time.” He insists that “we must see those who live in the year 2050 as our neighbors, as real neighbors. Our unseen great-grandchildren and those of others are as much our neighbors as our present family members and the family living next door.” When you think of it this way it soon becomes clear that “the only way we can love our neighbor across time is to leave them a decent place to live.”
In the conclusion to one chapter he says, “Global warming, ozone-layer depletion, and multiple forms of pollution are three massive earth threats. They assault human life everywhere and jeopardize our entire ecosystem. However, their impact on today’s world is probably far less adverse than it will be on future generations.” Parham believes the time to act is now and that “we must view present-day reforms and initiatives as an insurance policy for the future.”
I realize that the concept of loving neighbors across time will be new to many but it makes perfect sense. If we are going to fulfill what Jesus called “the greatest commandment” then we must take better care of the earth now so that those who come after us will be able to enjoy, benefit and be blessed by it. Love demands we do no less.
(The image above was taken at Irwin Pond in the Hiwatha National Forest. The beauty of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan must definitely be preserved for future generations!)